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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                    327
beating of his heart, changed to another key. Alexei
caught the change at once. The wood was distinctly visible;
it was about seven kilometres away, and it was three or
four kilometres wide. Not much. But there was this sinister
change in the regular beat of the engine. An airman feels
this with his whole being, as if it were not the engine,
but he himself gasping for breath. Suddenly there comes
the ominous "chuck, chuck, chuck", that shoots through
his body with frightful pain.
"No! It's all right. It's working steadily again. It's
working! Hurrah! And here is the wood!" He could see
the tops of the birch-trees like a green sea heaving in the
sunlight. It was impossible to land anywhere now except
at the airfield. There was only one thing to do now:
forward, forward!
Chuck, chuck, chuck!
The engine droned again. For long? He was over the
wood. He could see the sandy path running smooth and
straight through it like the parting on the Wing Com-
mander's head. The airfield was now three kilometres
away: it was behind that serrated border, which Alexei
thought he could already see.
Chuck, chuck, chuck! And suddenly silence reigned,
so deep that he could hear the tackle humming in the
wind. The end! A cold shiver ran down Meresyev's back.
Bail out? No! Go a little further. He turned the machine
into a sloping descent and glided down, trying to keep as
level as possible and at the same time avoid dropping into
a spin.
How terrible was this absolute silence in the air! It
was so intense that he could hear the crackling of the
cooling engine, and the throbbing of his temples and noise
in his ears from the rapid descent. The ground was rising
fast to meet him, as if a huge magnet were drawing it
towards the plane!
He could see the edge of the wood and the emerald-
green patch of the airfield beyond it. Too late? The pro-
peller stuck at a half-turn. It was terrible to see it motion-
less in the air! The wood was quite close. Was this the
end? Would she never know what had happened to him,
what superhuman efforts he had made during the past
eighteen months, that after all he had achieved his goal,